September 7, 2022 | Foreign Policy

How Beijing Benefits From a New Iran Deal

The nuclear agreement could unleash Chinese activity in the Gulf and complicate U.S. goals in the Indo-Pacific.
September 7, 2022 | Foreign Policy

How Beijing Benefits From a New Iran Deal

The nuclear agreement could unleash Chinese activity in the Gulf and complicate U.S. goals in the Indo-Pacific.

Excerpt

Supporters of a new Iran deal claim it will put Tehran’s atomic program “in a box” so that Washington and its allies can finally focus on countering Beijing’s increasing belligerence in the Indo-Pacific. But a shorter, weaker deal that significantly strengthens Iran’s hand will have the opposite effect: It will lead to greater instability in both the Middle East and Indo-Pacific while enabling China to deepen its influence throughout the Gulf.

Years of punishing international sanctions have left Iran diplomatically and economically isolated, with Tehran seeking greater support from other autocratic regimes. That extends to its partnership with China, which in recent years has become Iran’s top trading partner, a leading destination for energy exports, and a major investor in Iranian industry. While Sino-Iranian military cooperation has ebbed from its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s, the two countries engage in periodic military exchanges, joint exercises, and port calls. In January, for example, 11 Iranian vessels joined three Russian ships and two Chinese vessels in a series of joint tactical and artillery drills in the northern Indian Ocean. Likewise, China actively supports Iran’s cruise and ballistic missile programs, providing it with technology that has been integrated into systems used against U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq as recently as 2020.

Nevertheless, the Sino-Iranian partnership has its limits. Clearly, both countries remain committed to undermining the U.S.-led rules-based order, often taking each other’s side during disputes with Washington. But China’s strong relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—Iran’s chief regional adversaries—have forced to pursue a balanced engagement strategy in the Gulf.

Craig Singleton is a senior China fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. diplomat. Twitter: @CraigMSingleton. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

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Issues:

China Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran Nuclear Iran Politics and Economy Iran Sanctions Sanctions and Illicit Finance